Tag: adventure design

Running the Single Session Adventure

The fourth and final piece of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios.

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2 • Prep for the Session


Encourage Play that Saves Time

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote that I would avoid issues pertaining to social graces (or lack thereof), but the question of whether players should toy around with electronic devices at the table applies to single-session adventures more than to normal adventure and campaigns. Suffice to say that your group should be in agreement on how to handle this, for delays could result in failure to complete the adventure, which would ruin the entire session for everyone. If need be, have a quick discussion on this before the game starts.

The DM will find it more important than ever to handle THAT player—the one that makes all the bad jokes that have nothing to do with gaming—the same one that side-tracks everything by recounting his day at work in the middle of the game. You are adults so you need no advice on how to handle it, but be aware that not addressing it could possible ruin the game for everyone if you don’t finish. Read more

Prep for Single Session Adventures

Part 3 of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios. 

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2


Give out Characters Beforehand

If you decide to use pre-generated characters, send the character sheets to your players before game day. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with the character a bit. This is especially important for spell-casters, which are more complex to run than fighters. Distributing the sheets early also fosters excitement and anticipation for your game.

Bring Extra Stuff

Expect a few players to forget dice, pencils, and paper. These things take only a few minutes to gather, and the players in question will be grateful. Besides, you don’t want anything to delay you, as time is fleeting on game day.

Preroll For NPCs

This is a trick that I’ve used successfully for years now. The slow pace of the combat round has been a bugbear in most versions of D&D, and I imagine that other games have similar problems. Though I learned from experience that AD&D (or 1st Edition) can move combat along quicker than later versions, pre-rolling attacks and damage will speed things up, no matter what version you play. Of course, you can do this in your regular campaigns too, but the practice is doubly helpful with single-session adventures.

I usually roll between three and seven attacks for each monster, but use common sense. If you have twelve goblins, then perhaps thirty rolls are enough. Several goblins will likely die in the first few rounds, and if they are getting stomped, they will likely flee and end the combat. After rolling attacks, you can usually eyeball the numbers and figure out how many potential hits you have. If I rolled thirty times, I might see only ten rolls that are above a 14. Roll that many damage rolls and then add a few extra for good measure.
When you pre-roll damage or attacks, ensure that you include all known modifiers now. The more math that you do beforehand, the less you’ll need to do on game day, and combat will move that much quicker. Make sure that you are clear on what modifiers you already included (jot it down if necessary). Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 2

In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.

If you missed the previous article, find it here:

Designing the Adventure part 1


Consider Multiple Environments

George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king. Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 1

Part one of a four-article series on designing and running a one-shot, single-session adventure. See the end of the article for links to the rest of the series.


Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, but for years I have been intrigued by the early tournament adventures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At Origins II in 1976, several DMs ran Gary Gygax’s new science-fiction/fantasy crossover, later called S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This stand-alone adventure was a simple one-round affair, in which various gaming groups competed. A uniform scoring system allowed DMs to give each group a score (and perhaps each player—I’m not sure).

Later, Gygax expanded the scope of his idea to a series of linked adventures. At Origins IV in 1978, over the course of two days, DMs ran dozens of groups through Gygax’s new, three-part adventure, later titled G1-3: Against the Giants. The groups that did best with the first adventure in the first round got to play the subsequent adventures in the second and third rounds, either later that day or on the following day. The sequel, D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, was not used in a tournament, but at GenCon XI that same year, DMs ran two follow-up adventures in the series, namely D2: Shrine of the Koa-Toa and D3: Vault of the Drow. Two years later, at GenCon XIII in 1980, DMs ran players through the entirety of Gygax’s new Slaver series, including A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Sometime after each convention, Gygax published the adventures. Generations of gamers have rated several of these series as their favorites of all time.

An experienced DM that tries their hand at writing a single-session adventure, whether for their personal gaming group or for strangers at a convention—whether as a scored tournament or not—will quickly find that it requires a very specific design. You simply cannot plan it in the same way that you would a long-term campaign or even a stand-alone adventure that will take many gaming sessions. What are the required differences? What tips can we use to produce successful single-session adventures? Let’s take a look. Read more

RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon

This is RPG-ology #24:  An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.


On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan.  The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title
Game Ideas Unlimited:  An Amusing Dungeon.

Photo by flickr user Waldo Jacquith under Creative Commons 2.0 license, no changes were made.

  Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players.  After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me.  I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting.  But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one.  One of those was that dungeons had to make sense:  there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built.  And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.

  The story I invented was fairly simple.  Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren.  It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction.  The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy.  The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.

  The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others.  The newcomers made changes, making this their homes.  Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.

  Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers.  They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts.  A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes.  One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age.  Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.

  And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries.  For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.

  It was an amusement park.

  It wasn’t difficult to design.  I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion.  There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs.  Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.

  Some of these were very straightforward.  There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display.  Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear.  A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one.  A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat.  And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked.  I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin.  But there was so much more.

  The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive.  The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi.  The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level.  The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters.  And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.

  My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl.  The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south.  The room had a thirty foot ceiling.  There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front.  The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall.  A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning.  As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall.  Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them.  This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall.  But then the truly terrifying happened:  the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below.  They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun.  Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop.  One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon.  Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth.  But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.

  But their favorite was probably the roller coaster.  This began as a bench at the end of a hall.  If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall.  I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them.  But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant.  Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them.  The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another.  I think one of the players may actually have screamed.  I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.

  I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember.  They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried.  Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had.  Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.

  I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work.  It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map.  Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war.  This was just part of the show.  What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.

  A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined.  This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon.  I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality.  I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions.  The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical.  By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.


Previous article:  Nonrandom Thought.
Next article:  Transmats.

RPG-ology #22: Snow Day

This is RPG-ology #22:  Snow Day, for September 2019.


As I write this, it’s snowing; snow is sticking to the ground, and we’re probably going to be snowed in.  At least, the boys are hoping there will be no school tomorrow.

That makes no sense to most of you as you read this.  By the time it reaches print (or the electronic equivalent) it will be summer.  I am writing this well in advance of the anticipated publication date.  Here we recently saw the tips of crocuses before the snow buried them, and were worried about some of the other early flowers blooming too soon.  Spring will have passed here when this is published, and all thoughts of snow and ice will be forgotten.

No, I talked about the past slipping away last month.  This month, something different.

I want you to remember the last time it snowed wherever you are.  For some of you this might be an impossible task.  For that I apologize.  Most of my readers are experiencing summer, and winter is just a memory; some are experiencing winter, and need imagine little.  If you’re one of those unfortunate enough to have always lived without snow, this experiment won’t be so much help for you.  Maybe you can use it for something else—focus on what it feels like to be an excluded minority, and write an article about injustice and discrimination.  (See, you can take anything and use it for ideas—you just have to keep turning it over until you find a side you hadn’t seen before.) Read more

RPG-ology #21: Living In the Past

This is RPG-ology #21:  Living In the Past, for August 2019.


All four of my grandparents have died.  I have also lost my father, and both of my wife’s parents are gone.  I had a long list of great uncles and great aunts at one time, but it has dwindled to nothing, and of my uncles and aunts I might still have one.

The five and dime at which I bought candy on my way home from school is gone, and I am one and a half hundred miles from where it once stood.  There’s a long list of good friends with whom I have lost touch—Jay Fedigan, Artie Robins, Jeff Zurheide, Jack Haberer, not to mention Peggy Lisbona, Nancy Codispoti, Ann Hughes, and the girl to whom my mind often returns, on whom I had an impossible crush for two or three years beginning in second grade, Christie Newcomb.  At least two of those people, all within a couple years of my age, are dead; and although I have spoken or corresponded with some within the past decade, I cannot say for certain that any one of them is still alive today.

No one will be surprised that the past is disappearing into—well, into the past.  That’s expected.  Young people will wonder why I even mention it.  You’re living in the past, old man.  Get over it.  Life goes forward, and will leave you behind if you don’t keep up.  I know this; I can sigh and let life leave me behind, or I can keep moving forward.

But I’ve got news for you.

You’re living in the past, too.

That talk you had with your girlfriend yesterday—that’s now in the past.  Get over it; the moment has come and gone.  Whatever you should have said, well, you didn’t, and you’re not going to be able to go back and fix that.

You got beat up last month.  It’s in the past.  It’s over, and fading faster and faster into oblivion.  Ten years and you might not remember his name.  Twenty years and you won’t remember that it happened.  Yes it hurt, and it hurts, and you’re angry and upset about it.  But it’s the past now.  You can’t hold on to it; you might as well let it go.

That A+ you got on your math test (or was it the “letter” you received in varsity football, or the badge you earned in boy scouts, or the award you won for your picture or article)—well, that’s also in the past.  Time is leaving it behind.  You will eventually forget it.  And everyone else will forget it long before you do.

Was breakfast good today?  It’s gone already.

You are living in the past.  Everything you know, everything you remember, everything you’ve ever said—even the thoughts you had when you started reading this article–everything is in the past.  You can’t have it back.

Don’t feel bad about it.  It’s the same for everyone else.  In fact, it’s the same for the world, quite apart from the people.  I’m one of those who are often quoting C. S. Lewis.  There are enough of us out here that there ought to be a DSM-IV classification for us.  So you’ll probably see his name in a lot of these articles if you stay with the series.  This time he comes to mind because of a very simple observation he mentioned more than once:  most people are already dead.

That is, of all the people ever born, only a very few are alive now.

This moment in time is interesting; if you could know everything that is happening at this instant, it would overwhelm you—even if your knowledge was limited to your own town, there would be more happening this instant than you could grasp, enough ideas for a lifetime of stories.  Yet when compared with the past, this instant is no time at all, a desert devoid of interest.  In trying to get readers to think and create, I often focus on now.  Last month’s article, entitled Pay Attention, might at first glance have seemed to have been about the past—but it was actually about capturing the present, living in the moment and learning from what is around you immediately.  Writing it down served to preserve it, certainly; but it also served to force you to notice it.  The present is always a source of ideas.  But the ideas you can get from the present are dwarfed by those you can get from the past.

Assuming you can find them.

My father was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluvan engineer.  He drove a reconditioned Model-T to school, poured fifty-weight oil into the crankcase to keep the worn bearings running smoothly, and had to crank-start it by hand on cold mornings.  He played fourth sax (tenor) in a dance band to help pay for college, and went to work in an electronics lab for Western Union.  When he was head of the lab, he proposed “Young’s Law.”  Accidents occasionally happened in the lab, usually because someone didn’t have the right piece of equipment and so tried to use the wrong piece of equipment on the theory that it really wasn’t different; the results of such experiments were always strange and confusing.  My father’s law reads, “Things that are not the same are different.”  He missed World War II, having been enlisted just as the war ended.  All this, and more, was before my birth.

He later took an interest in computers, and in the late 60’s spent a lot of time nagging the few computer tinkerers at the company to explain things to him.  This led to a few courses, more investigation, and ultimately to his position as head of engineering for Western Union Data Services Corporation, where he designed systems before there were PC’s.  He holds a couple of patents in focusing microwaves, but he says they really aren’t worth much because modern microwave applications rely on reflection rather than refraction.

He met my mother, a New York girl, after he started work in New York; he courted her for a while.  She tried to pair him off with a girl from Virginia, thinking that two slow-moving southerners would be a good match, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

As for her, she got her bachelor’s degree from City College in New York at nineteen.  She had skipped a lot of half-grades in the New York City schools, and excelled in math.  For quite a few years she worked as an efficiency expert for, I think, General Electric.  If you visited her at home, you would see the efficiency expert side of her still maintaining everything in order even now in her nineties as her grandchildren are all adults and she has a couple of great-grandchildren.  She left work to raise a family, and when the youngest was old enough she returned to teaching, mostly math, as a substitute primarily although she got roped into substituting full time for several years at one point.  She has always looked young; the day after her college graduation, an immigrant bought her a lollipop.

When they were courting, they would ride the train together from Freeport Long Island to The City; they sat with an older man who had known my mother for some time.  He did not think that the quiet, slow, polite Mississippi gentleman that was my father was at all right for my fast-paced New York mother.  But one day, as my mother was yacking a mile a minute about nothing of any importance and the other two sat in silence listening, she abruptly stopped, and said, “Oh dear, I forgot what I was going to say.”

Quietly my father replied, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll think of something else.”

Their companion roared with laughter, and accepted my father as the right man for my mother from then on.

So, what did your parents do?  Have you ever asked?  Did they tell you?  Their lives are fading from their memories even as you read this; and they were full of stories.  Life itself is an adventure.  I’d think you’d want to know about them merely because they’re your parents, and thus in some sense your story.  But if not, consider it a source of game, world, and character ideas.

This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited:  Living In the Past, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.


Previous article:  Pay Attention.
Next article:  Snow Day.

RPG-ology #8: The Illusion of Choice

This is RPG-ology #8:  The Illusion of Choice, for July 2018.


Last time we talked a bit about the power of the referee, how it can be abused, and the principles that should prevent that abuse.  This time our focus is on how to use that power in a way that will enhance the game by getting outside our usual expectations.

There is a referee “style” identified as “Illusionism,” one of four identified ways of resolving the issue dubbed The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast:  if the players have complete control over all their character actions, how is it that the referee actually controls the story of the game?  You can read about all four answers at Places to Go:  People to Be, in Theory 101:  The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, or in the French edition as Théorie 101 – 2e partie : Le Truc Impossible Avant Le Petit Déj’ if French is easier for you.  Most people condemn Illusionism as unfair to the players, who have no idea that their choices do not matter.  Yet Illusionism is built on the use of some very useful Illusionist techniques, and one of them might be an answer to a problem with certain kinds of play.

Many years ago a referee was bemoaning a disastrous game session.  He had designed a high-rise building in which terrorists had hidden a bomb.  The expectations of the scenario (a Trailblazing design) were that the party would move through the building and along the way collect the information needed to defuse the bomb.  Unfortunately, a few perhaps lucky or unlucky turns put them at the bomb right at the beginning of their adventure, and one of the characters decided that rather than risk letting the time run through its several hours he would attempt to deactivate it now—with a bad roll of the dice detonating it and killing the entire party right at the beginning of the game session.

And I realized that there was a much better way to run a scenario of that sort.  I wrote Game Ideas Unlimited:  Left or Right? (only the French translation, Gauche ou droite ? remains online) to explain my solution, and used it in creating a scenario in a world for Multiverser:  The Third Book of Worlds entitled Why Spy.  That book might never be published, although I run the world regularly at gamer conventions, so if you’re ever playing at my table for such a game let me know that you’ve read this.

What I realized is that such a scenario does not work well as a dungeon design.  It needs to be run like a movie director.

The scenario is about terrorists occupying a fifty-story downtown commercial office and retail building.  There are four maps, each designed so that any one of the four sides can be “north” and all the stairwells, elevators, and utilities ducts will align.  The referee is encouraged to make multiple copies of these so he can write and draw on them.  The players are free to decide how they want to enter the building—ground level entrances on each side (front door, back door, loading dock, parking entrance), roof door, or break through a window at any level.  They know that there is some unknown number of terrorists holding some unknown number of hostages, and that they claim to have a nuclear device which they will detonate if their demands are not met.

Whenever they decide where they are entering, the referee chooses one of the floorplan maps, decides which edge is north, and begins the game.  The only fixed encounter locations are the number of terrorists at each of the doors.  Once the players are inside the building, it doesn’t work that way.  The way it does work is there are nineteen encounters—the first a lone armed terrorist in the hall, the last the bomb itself.  As the player characters move through the building, the referee describes the map, inventing irrelevant details (e.g., opthamologist’s office, photography studio, planter outside the door, mirror on the wall) and decides where the first encounter will occur as they move toward it.  The tools of the game are used to determine whether the players and/or the terrorists are surprised, and the players take whatever actions they wish to resolve the encounter.  Assuming they survive, the game continues.  If the players move to a different floor, the referee repeats the process of selecting a floorplan and orienting it, and continues putting the encounters in their path as they progress.  Players can avoid encounters if they wish, provided they have seen the encounter before it has noticed them, but they will find each in the order it is listed.  Encounters include finding an office worker in hiding, finding a door with a bomb on it, encountering terrorists with and without hostages, coming to an open area visible from above or below where terrorists might be, learning that a strike team has been sent to find them, the team getting split, part of the team rescuing the other part, finding the leader with a remote detonator, and finding the bomb.

What the technique in essence does is deprive the players of control over the order in which encounters occur—that is, they can’t go directly to the terrorist leader without passing through the other events.  In doing this, it creates the fun.  You could, of course, design a dungeon crawl with only one direction through, forcing the players to face the encounters in the order you’ve decided.  This “directorial” technique accomplishes the same result, but with the feeling that they can go any direction they wish.  Indeed, they can—it’s just that which direction they go is completely unimportant to what happens next.  They can’t derail the scenario, save only by deciding to retreat from the building.

You don’t necessarily need a map to do this, if you can keep track of where everything is in your head.  There are ways to do that, too, which we will discuss in the future.


Previous article:  Playing Fair.
Next article:  Three Doors.